Sundance Film Review: ‘Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief’

Going Clear Scientology and the Prison

Alex Gibney shakes the Scientology tree in his crackling film version of Lawrence Wright's nonfiction bestseller.

Though the lid was blown off the Church of Scientology long ago, Alex Gibney’s powder-keg documentary, “Going Clear,” should certainly rattle the walls, if not shake them to their very foundations. Gibney had an excellent blueprint to work from in Lawrence Wright’s exhaustively researched 2013 nonfiction bestseller (from which the film takes its title), but he’s also added much fascinating material here, including new interviews and proprietary Scientology video footage that has to be seen to be disbelieved. A hot ticket at Sundance, “Going Clear” should have no trouble maintaining its must-see buzz through its HBO premiere in March and beyond.

The prolific Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God”) excels at untangling complex systems and institutions, and at showing us the human faces behind scandal-making headlines. Unsurprisingly, “Going Clear” is weighted toward candid, impassioned interviews with ex-Scientologists who share their stories in the hope of dissuading others from following in their footsteps. Some are alumni of Wright’s book, like the disarming Sylvia “Spanky” Taylor, a longtime worker at Scientology Hollywood “Celebrity Center” (where she was appointed John Travolta’s personal handler), and “Crash” director Paul Haggis, who made waves when he renounced the church in 2009. Others are unique to the film, like Sara Goldberg, who obtained the church’s highest spiritual designation (Operating Thetan Level 8), only to quit in 2013 after being asked to “disconnect” from her own son, who had been deemed a “suppressive person.”

Considering that Wright (a producer here, as well as an interview subject) had more than 400 pages to spin his serpentine narrative and Gibney a mere two hours of screen time, a lot has fallen by the wayside. Yet it’s impressive just how much detail “Going Clear” manages to pack in, especially with regard to the early days of the church under its founder, the sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard. Among the juiciest bits: onscreen comparisons showing how Hubbard refashioned bits of his pulp novels into his Scientology dogma; excerpts from the letters of Hubbard’s second wife, Sara Northrup Hollister (voiced in the film by actress Sherry Stringfield); and footage from Hubbard’s few TV interviews, in which it’s possible to see just how much his look and language informed the Philip Seymour Hoffman character in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master.”

Wright has said he set out not to write an expose, but to understand how Scientology worked, and Gibney’s film is driven by similar aims. Starting with Haggis, the expert witnesses recount how they were first drawn to the church by its promises of success, happiness and the vanquishing of personal demons; the initial euphoria of the “auditing” process (by which members are taught to rid themselves of painful memories from their past, and their past lives); and their gradual realization — many years and thousands of dollars later — that the emperor Hubbard wasn’t wearing any clothes. (In Haggis’ case, being presented with a set of handwritten “secret” documents outlining Hubbard’s alternative view of the origins of the universe was a major red flag.)

Gibney contrasts those stories with the testimonials of several former high-ranking Scientology executives (including church PR spokesman Mike Rinder and Mark “Marty” Rathbun, onetime right hand to church leader David Miscavige), who elucidate the various strategies developed by the church to keep its sheep firmly in the flock, and to silence critics. Hardly immune to such abuses themselves, these erstwhile insiders recount hair-raising tales of years spent confined to “the hole” — a series of filthy double-wide trailers on Scientology’s “Gold Base” property in Riverside County, Calif., that functioned as a sort of concentration camp for perceived enemies of the deeply paranoid Miscavige.

Fascinating statistics abound: the slave wages paid to Scientology staffers; the diminishing number of active church members (estimated now to be around 50,000); and the exponentially increasing worth of the organization’s vast global real-estate holdings (said to be around $3 billion). Ample screen time is also devoted to the church’s complex relationship with its biggest celebrity cheerleader, Tom Cruise (sans any new revelations), and its protracted 1990s fight against the Internal Revenue Service to restore its tax-exempt status — a victory (secured in 1993) that absolved Scientology of a $1 billion tax debt and afforded it vast protection from prosecution under the religious freedoms of the First Amendment. When the news was announced, the Scientology elite celebrated with a massive rally in L.A., seen here in video footage that suggests the Golden Globe Awards as staged by Leni Riefenstahl.

At the heart of it all, Gibney has made a great film about the dangers of blind faith or, as the subtitle of “Going Clear” puts it, “the prison of belief” — a phenomenon hardly unique to Scientology, and whose consequences are all too apparent in today’s headlines. For Scientologists, going clear refers to a coveted status awarded to those who have completed a certain level of auditing. But for the men and women on screen here, it means something else: reclaiming their own voices and demanding to be heard.

Sundance Film Review: 'Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres), Jan. 25, 2015. Running time: 119 MIN.


(Documentary) An HBO Documentary Films presentation in association with Sky Atlantic of a Jigsaw production. (International sales: Content Media, Los Angeles.) Produced by Alex Gibney, Lawrence Wright, Kristen Vaurio. Executive producers, Chris Wilson, Sheila Nevins.


Directed, written by Alex Gibney, based on the book by Lawrence Wright. Camera (color, HD), Sam Painter; editor, Andy Grieve; music, Will Bates; music supervisor, John McCullough; production designer, Rob Locasio; sound designer, Bill Chesley; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Tony Volante; senior visual effects supervisor, Steve Mottershead; visual effects supervisor, Tamir Sapir; senior visual effects producer, Lisa Starace; visual effects producer, Melissa Fornabaio; visual effects, Artjail; associate producers, Jacqui Lewis, Lauren Wolf


Lawrence Wright, Mark “Marty” Rathbun, Monique Rathbun, Mike Rinder, Jason Beghe, Paul Haggis, Sylvia “Spanky” Taylor, Sara Goldberg, Tony Ortega, Kim Masters. Voice: Sherry Stringfield.

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  1. Considering all the hype about this documentary, I was surprised at the lack of factual material. Most of the “evidence” seemed to derive from ex-members, who were highly emotional and affecting, but who were essentially discussing the poor life choices they had made, and now regret. They are not the first to hand themselves over to religion only to eventually discover their faith wasn’t justified.
    Some of the accusations were far-fetched, for instance that Scientology had blackmailed the IRS into granting them tax free status, by threatening to reveal irregularities. Government agencies are like machines; it’s hard to believe they could be halted by one organization. Even the mob couldn’t stop the IRS, and they threaten much worse than lawsuits.
    What I looked for, and didn’t find, was any suggestion that the adults in Scientology were being held against their will. They chose to join this church and choose to remain; there’s no force involved. The idea that they are “brainwashed” or “hypnotized” makes little sense; is there ANY religion that doesn’t do the same?
    There is a tremendous amount of media around Scientology – the actors, I suppose -but it is actually a tiny group in the population. Perhaps we should focus on the major world religions whose millions of followers may be at risk. As far as I know, Scientology has no pedophile clergy or child suicide bombers.

  2. Aileen McEleney says:

    That a cult abuses and dominates it’s members does not surprise me. John Travolta should bite the bullet, can their bluff on his “blackmail tapes” (after all, he’s been a cult member for years, we all know this, we’re hardly going to be surprised if he opens his closet and a few skeletons pop out. Room Cruise on the other hand should stay where he is. He and this cult (I’m not going to legitamise it by calling it a church, they just cask it a church for tax related charity status), they deserve one another, they are equally reprehensible.
    31/3/15 from Bonnybridge, Scotland

  3. Evreal says:

    This was a very well made documentary exposing just how corrupt, manipulative and abusive this so called “religion” has been. This filmmaker effectively conveyed just how creepy, cultish and psychopathic both Hubbard and Miscavige behave(d), and the weird power they held over their flock. The fact that this filmmaker was successfully able to get many former high ranking long time Scientology members to appear on camera and share some very disturbing and abusive experiences and then admit to embarrassment and regret for their roles…is a huge testament to all of them. I cannot fathom how 50,000(+) people actually PAY(!) to believe/follow this crap…Tom Cruise and John Travolta withstanding!

  4. Marlene says:

    Scientology exposed as a killer cult. Tom Cruise is as creepy as any gossip rag could ever portray him as. John Travolta is like a deer in the headlights. No wonder these two embrace this insanity.

  5. Let’s ask this question, if it’s true what the film is saying that they are keeping all these files on personal misdeeds and mistakes for use of blackmailing later on. Then wouldn’t the Scientologist have put out all the stuff on these ex-members files already to the public? Which as far as I know they haven’t and trust me knowing the media it would have been reported a long time ago. Scientology is no different than the Christians when they first started, the Romans persecuted, ridiculed and tortured them and later the Christians doing it to other sects during the Inquisition. Some might say Hubbard was a sci-fi writer. So what Jesus was a carpenter was his job more qualified to start a new movement? This is just a repeated pattern of history that anything new, different and outside the norm gets attacked.

    I could make a film about any person or organization and only interview the people that hate you or it with no inclusion of the good things a person or organization does and present it as a documentary and you know what people would believe you’re entirely evil and you know why? Because it’s in a movie theatre, TV or the web so it must be true, it’s sad. Just like anything there are two sides to any story and I hope people would be smart enough to not just listen to one side. Besides who beats the IRS out of a billion dollars they’re owed rightfully? No one! They don’t pay taxes because they must have recognized that it is a legitimate religion.

    • johninsapporo says:

      The largest body of knowledge about life, the mind and the spirit is presented in the subjects of Dianetics and Scientology. Not a word is mentioned about the content of Hubbard’s life work, but knee jerk bleatings about whether Scientology is recognised as a religion, whether or not a few Sea Org members appeared happy and all kinds of irrelevant BS.

      Galileo went through just this problem.

      • If you believe that religion, and the texts written by a dime-novel science-fiction writer represents the “largest body of knowledge about life, the mind and the spirit..”, you need to expose yourself to more information.

        Utter idiocy. I’ve read about the life-works of Galileo an L.R. Hubbard, and L.R. Hubbard is no Galileo.

    • While it is bilking a lot of people, it’s status as a religion isn’t doing so well world-wide:

      Belgium: In 2005 Scientology’s application for the status of a recognized religion was refused.

      Brazil: Not registered as a religion. Registered as a non-religious “private association” under CNPJ number 05.586.122/0001-25. The organization has the following registered activities: sound recording and music edition, book publishing, distribution of movies, videos and TV programs.

      Canada: A 2008 article in the Torontoist stated that the Church does not have status as a federally registered charity for tax purposes.

      Czech Republic: Not officially recognized as religion

      Denmark: In Denmark the Church of Scientology is not officially approved as a religion.[22] It first applied for approval in the early 1970s; two further unsuccessful applications followed in 1976 and 1982.[22] In mid-1997, the Church of Scientology filed a fourth application, which was suspended at their own request in 2000.

      Finland: Finland Scientology is not officially recognized as a religion. An application by the Church of Scientology to be registered as a religious body was denied by the Ministry of Education in 1998 on the grounds that “the known nature of the activities is not public worship in the sense meant by the law on freedom of religion”. The denial was issued after the Church “had failed to comply with a request for more information”

      France: Since 1995, Scientology has sometimes been classified as a secte (sect), for instance in a report of the National Assembly of France.[24] On this basis, a hostile stance is generally taken against the organization.[25] In 2009, Scientology was fined the equivalent of almost US$900,000 upon conviction for fraud.[26]

      Germany: The status of Scientology in Germany is unresolved.[27] Two points are contested: firstly, whether or not the teachings of Scientology qualify as a religious or ideological teaching, and secondly, whether or not these teachings are only used as a pretext for purely commercial activity; if the latter were the case, this would most likely imply that Scientology would not qualify for protection as a religious or ideological community under Article 4 of the German constitution

      Ireland: In Ireland, the Church of Scientology has not been successful in its attempts to obtain tax-free, charitable status

      The Netherlands: On 17 October 2013 the Court of Amsterdam determined that Scientology is a charitable organization.

      Norway: Norway does not recognize the official Church of Scientology as a religious community, but it is registered as a non-profit

      There’s more at the wiki page for it:

    • pt02 says:

      Maybe there really isn’t anything to say? I’m nearly 40 and I can’t say that I can think of anything I have done in the past that would truly publicly humiliate me if it came out. Not to mention many of these people had been with the “church” for decades, most of their secrets probably would expose Scientology.

    • Thank you, Welbyn for stating what the guys with an agenda choose to omit from their rantings. Your opinion is appreciated.

  6. James says:

    One sad part is to see how many Sea Org members, people that for the most part have good intentions, become sad and miserable. I saw so many of them become just run down and unhappy. It showed in some more than in others. And many don’t see through the limiting impure philosophy the founder created.

  7. Atomic Fury says:

    Man, those who get involved with the Church of Scientology deserve one another. I find it difficult to sympathize for the dupers, the duped and those about to be duped. If you are that stupid, you deserve whatever happens to you because that’s nature’s way of weeding out the weak.

  8. bob says:

    After reading this I realised that Scientology is to Religous freedom as pronogrphy is to freedom of expression.

  9. Nibs Purcell says:

    I’m so effing mad I can’t see straight!
    Nothing in the ‘documentary’ ever happened.
    Captain Miscavige is the world’s foremost and most humble humanitarian, bar none. As stated in the Tamba Bay Times, “Hubbard biographer Danny Sherman told a story of Miscavige spotting an injured sparrow, talking to it and checking back later to see if it lived. “It was immensely tender.”
    Read a sane and unbiased rebuttal at

    • johninsapporo says:

      Nibs is a troll.

    • jmkaep says:

      You are obviously a $cientologist. That’s ok. I think most of us now understand how you got there and what you are dealing with and we sympathize. But honestly, most people are not interested in what’s in Freedom mag. We recognize it for what is is, desperate $cientology propaganda.

    • Peggles says:

      Keep in mind that Nibs is just another blinded idiot from Division 6C. Their job is to deal with PR issues.
      How do I know? Simple, he/she said that nothing in the documentary every happened. How would they know unless they’d been informed by their higher ups (or they must be prescient to know everything that did or didn’t happen). Obviously if they LOVE DM so much, they didn’t spend time in the hole or being paid slave wages by Seaorg.

    • what is a crocodile liar?

    • wiles11 says:

      Oh, shuuuuut UP!

      • Mark says:

        Yes, by all means folks, check out! If you possess a wee bit of intelligence and nominal critical thinking skills, you will quickly realize that you are reading puerile, ad hominem-riddled propaganda. It´s the perfect advertisement for the (allegedly) ¨most ethical group¨ on the planet. It´s based, in part, on the following L. Ron Hubbard policies :
        “If attacked on some vulnerable point by anyone or anything or any organization, always find or manufacture enough threat against them to cause them to sue for peace.”
        – L. Ron Hubbard, Hubbard Communications Office Policy Letter, 15 August 1960, Dept. of Govt. Affairs
        “This is the correct procedure: Spot who is attacking us. Start investigating them promptly for felonies or worse using our own professionals, not outside agencies. -Double curve our reply by saying we welcome an investigation of them. Start feeding lurid, blood sex crime actual evidence on the attackers to the press. Don’t ever tamely submit to an investigation of us. Make it rough, rough on attackers all the way.”
        – L. Ron Hubbard, Hubbard Communications Office Policy Letter, 25 February 1966

      • scnethics says:

        Nibs Purcell, the name says it all :)

      • whostolemycog says:

        We enjoy the Captain’s uniform…the whole fake navy thing with all of the gold braid totally rocks…that and the fact even though he’s only 4’13” tall, if you look at him the wrong way, he’ll be all over you like stink on an RPFer. And never mind he can’t string together more than a few words without lobbing an F-bomb…Danny Sherman makes sure he appears articulate in public appearances.

        $cientology – fleecing peeps with cash since 1950.

      • Straight Diet of Kerbango says:

        I’m fairly certain Nibs is joking, but it’s hard to tell some times with Scientologists.

  10. Actually, it’s quite funny. Not only did most members of the audience say, “God, not another bullshit scientology story”, there was audible laughter at the most ludicrous statements by the actors passed off as disgruntled fake ex-members that are still currently in jail for perjury and making false statements. Most of the audience was aware everything presented in the mocumentary was debunked by FBI investigations. The addition of militia cult leader Mark “Marty” Rathbun, who has convictions for attempted murder of his own cult followers, as documented by the CNN investigation into Rathbun made this mocumentary more hilariously ludicrous. If this was meant to be an actual documentary, Gibney should have actually bothered to do his research. But what it became was like having known criminals and perjurers attempt to convince us Barack Obama is a pedophile and mass murderer and bombed Hollywood. It doesn’t work as a mocumentary because it’s not funny. It doesn’t work as a documentary because it’s extremely one sided and based on known and proven false information – like having career criminals complain about the Justice System and want the police department disbanded. People are sick of these invented scientology stories because it assumes the audience are gullible and stupid and will believe anything. We’re taught to respect the forth wall. In this case, Gibney clearly thinks the forth wall are ignoramuses.

    • jmkaep says:

      You are obviously a $cientologist. That’s ok. I think most of us now understand how you got there and what you are dealing with and we sympathize. But honestly, we don’t believe any of this delusional drivel. Hope you get out soon.

    • whostolemycog says:

      Way too many straw man arguments in one poorly written paragraph…get a grip homie….on something besides your Johnson that is.

      $cientology – fleecing peeps with cash since 1950.

    • wiles11 says:

      If your “forth wall” (fourth, perhaps?) are the savvy folks you so expertly claim audibly laughed at this documentary, then clearly most of them are Scientology apologists like yourself, and the film should b given an Oscar for regarding them as ignoramuses. As for the rest of us — the MAJORITY who know the truths put FORTH by this film, as well as the HUNDREDS of other disgusting revelations uncovered over the last several DECADES — well, we’re quite overjoyed that yet another document exists exposing Scientology for the putrid SCAM that it is, always has been, and always WILL be, assuming it even lasts much longer.

  11. Sal U. Lloyd says:

    What about Travolta and J Ho???

  12. “Ample screen time is also devoted to the church’s complex relationship with its biggest celebrity cheerleader, Tom Cruise (sans any new revelations)”…. really? how about the fact that every other outlet managed to point out that he got his church to bug his wife (Nicole Kidman of the three exes)… sheesh, you guys know what you’re doing?

  13. Paul Tatara says:

    “The Golden Globe Awards as staged by Leni Riefenstahl.” Nice.

  14. Miss Tia says:

    Quentin, I hope you are safe and aren’t right now being screamed and yelled at, deprived of sleep, food and pay and forced to post that link all over on different sites. If you are, then I’m sorry, there’s a life other than that. If you were raised a Scientologist I understand thinking of leaving could be very very scary, but it CAN be done. Freeloader debt is not legally enforceable, you are NOT required to do anything besides walk out the door. Did you know some people fake suicide attempts to be able to leave? Is that freedom? Disconnection DOES exist, but why should it? People outside Scientology have interfaith marriages—even marriages/relationships between Christians and Atheists. Cutting someone off only benefits the church of Scientology because they don’t people outside the bubble slipping truths to those still in—that is a sad fact—so to prevent that, families and lives are destroyed. If you’re online, please read some other sites and please truly think for yourself. If you entered Scientology on your own, it will be easier for you to leave. Please start looking around and SEEING and compare that with what you are told. I hope to see you posting FREELY sometime, soon, Quentin.

  15. Lisa says:

    Give it up Quentin, the only thing whacky is your alleged church and the human rights abuses they commit daily!! Nobody is buying your BS.

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